"'Saved'? From What?"
Luke 1:68-79 Dec.6/09 2nd in Advent
TIGER'S (AND OUR) FUNDAMENTAL HANDICAP
What would you say was Tiger Wood's basic problem? There's been a lot of speculation this past week about what triggered the champion golfer's car accident recently. While tabloids aren't always a reliable source of information, it seems Tiger may be experiencing some marital discord due to moral failure. His confession posted on his website would certainly point in that direction, referring to 'personal sins' and transgressions. But is it just a failure on the human level? Is it just a matter of making it up to his family, or is there more to it? Should we feel sorry for Mr Woods because of the unrelenting media probing? Is that a 'sin' on the same level as breaking a marriage vow?
There's confusion in our culture about what 'sin' really is, and consequently what's necessary for true confession, forgiveness, reconciliation - being 'saved' from a moral crash such as that. People tend to not talk about the spiritual side of sin; it's safer in public discourse not to bring God into it at all. But from a Biblical perspective, much more is needed for recovery from such an accident than just patching it up in the human dimension. Tiger's fundamental handicap - and ours - is not the number of strokes by which he typically beats par on a course; nor is it the hassle of unwanted media scrutiny, nor even letting down his wife and family (if that's actually what happened). Our fundamental problem as humans is sin's altering us infinitely, so that in our fallen guilty state, we're totally unacceptable to the perfect holy God who made us and to whom we must give account. To use a golfing analogy, sin doesn't just result in the ball landing off the fairway in the rough, or in a sandtrap, where a bit of extra digging or a penalty throw will get it back in the game en route to the green (ie heaven). Sin means the golf-ball (us) has landed way out in a deep water-hazard - we're completely lost, without hope of retrieval. (Which is why, whenever I go golfing, I try to make sure I have a good supply of spare balls on hand!)
Psalm 51 is THE classic prayer of confession in the Bible. It's heading attributes it to David after he'd committed adultery with Bathsheba. David didn't say, "Hide me from the sight of the national press, I want some privacy to work it out with my family." No, he appealed to God for mercy, asking the Lord to wash away his iniquity and cleanse him from his sin; vv3-4, "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge."
Today as we look at the prophecy made by John the Baptist's father about the significance of his son's arrival, we see the importance of salvation - not only being saved 'from' things but also saved 'for' what's much better.
WHAT ARE WE DELIVERED 'FROM'?
"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel," the priest Zechariah declares in Luke 1:68, "because He has come and has redeemed His people.[How's that? V69 continues] He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David..." You can tell he's not referring to his own miracle-baby here, because both Zechariah and Elizabeth were descendants of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi, not Judah as David's line was. Already Zechariah knew something was afoot since Mary had visited his wife Elizabeth a few months earlier after the angel's announcement. So even though the old man's been deaf and dumb for nearly a year, as soon as he gets his faculties back, the first words he speaks are not about his own son John but the One whom John will go on before, preparing the people for the Lord, as the angel which appeared to Zechariah at the Temple said (1:17).
What's a 'horn of salvation'? Amongst a people used to dealing with cattle, sheep, and goats, horns were a symbol of power and strength. So this would represent a person who's able to deliver, preserve, make safe, bring salvation or 'shalom' - wholeness, wellness, peace. There's a cluster of terms in this prophecy that shed more light on what God, speaking through Zechariah, means. "Redeemed" in v68 implies a ransom, buying back out of some sort of captivity or enslavement. V71 mentions salvation again - "salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us..." V74 recalls the oath God swore to Abraham "to rescue us from the hand of our enemies...." The passage referred to here is Genesis 22:17f, when God tests Abraham then halts him from sacrificing Isaac: "I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."
What are the enemies in view here? Certainly political enemies would be included, from Egyptians to Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, on down to the Romans who were the current cruel tyrants as Zechariah spoke. Overcoming human enemies was certainly thought to be part of the Messiah's job description, as Moses, Joshua, David, and other heroes of Israel's past had saved the nation from political oppression. And eventually Christianity did prevail in the Roman Empire at the time of Constantine.
But there are other enemies to fear. The word enemy derives from someone with whom you are 'not amicable' - not a friend, an un-ami (to toss in a little French). When God cursed the snake after it deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God said, "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." (Ge 3:15) Jesus in His teaching referred to Satan as the 'enemy' at least twice (Mt 13:39; Lk 10:19). The apostle Peter warned the church, "Be self-controlled and alert.Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." (1Pet 5:8) Certainly Satan and his fallen evil angels are enemies from which mortals like us would want to be freed.
But people have another enemy, much more fearsome than Satan. James writes that friendship with the world is hatred toward God; choosing to be a friend of the world makes us 'an enemy of God' (Jas 4:4). Paul is even clearer in his writing: "Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior." (Col 1:21) In the book of Romans Paul describes how God's wrath rightly targets human godlessness and wickedness; Romans 2:5, "But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed." Doesn't that describe most of us at some point? All have sinned and fallen short of God's glory (Rom 3:23). Who wants Almighty God as their enemy? What hope can there be if God's wrath is justifiably against us sinners?
Here is where Zechariah starts to get really excited. Somehow his little baby boy is going to have a part in preparing a way for the One who will make it possible for this reconciliation between God and fallen people to come about. Vv76f, speaking to the child in his arms, "you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give his people the knowledge of [what? here it is again] SALVATION through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God..."
Zechariah had been a priest serving at the Temple in Jerusalem many years. Perhaps as he prepared the animal sacrifices he wondered how the burned corpses and blood of bulls and goats could ever address human guilt. But now God was starting to show him something epic was about to happen: a once-for-all explosion of God's mercy through a Saviour who would somehow bring meaning to 'redemption' that all those animal offerings had been types of, pointers to. Paul later wrote, "For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!" (Rom 5:10)
What are we saved FROM? From being in bondage to the Evil One, the thief whose chief delight is to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). Also, the blood from Jesus' cross saves us from being legitimate targets of God's wrath on account of our sin. It was God's will and pleasure through Jesus "to reconcile to himself all things...by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (Col 1:20) We are saved from condemnation (Rom 5:16); saved from shame (Is 45:17, Rom 10:11) - you think Tiger Woods is squirming, how'd you like to have your own personal private sins broadcast on a screen the size of the Milky Way for the whole universe to see on the Day of Judgment?! Freed from an unshakable cloud of guilt - God purifies our hearts by faith (Acts 15:9). Our sins are removed, gone, as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12). Freed from death and corruption - God gave His Son so whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life! John 3:16 - and the next verse, God didn't send His Son into the world to CONDEMN the world, but to save the world through Him. Praise God for all He delivers us FROM!
In the words of the New Bible Dictionary: "Salvation relates to a deliverance from sin and its consequences and hence from guilt, from the law and its curse, from death, from judgment, also from fear and bondage."
We couldn't have done it on our own. A little boy came running into the house after playing outside. His mother stopped him and asked what was on his right hand. He replied, "Oh, just a little mud." His mother then asked if he was planning on getting it off his hand. He thought for a moment and said, "Sure, Mom, I'll just wipe it off with my other hand." There was only one problem with that plan - one dirty hand plus one clean hand equals two dirty hands.
Some see the evil and wrongs in their life and suppose they can make themselves clean by bringing the good in their life to bear on the problem; but it doesn't work that way! Only the blood of Jesus can cleanse us from our sins - God sees the life of His dear Son represented in that blood, poured out to bring us near.
WHAT ARE WE SAVED 'FOR'?
As if that weren't enough to be thankful for - Zechariah also points to the many positive benefits that God's rescue brings, not just the bad stuff being taken away. V74 continues on into 75, "to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days." We can't be saved by anything we do; yet we're not saved to do nothing. Here we are saved "so we can serve God without fear in holiness and righteousness for as long as we live" (NLT). Note the two qualities there, (1) holiness and (2) righteousness; FF Bruce comments that these are "the Godward and manward aspects of conduct" - holy toward God, righteous or just and fair in our dealings with other people.
There's more.Slip down to the last half of v78, "the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace." Isn't that a beautiful word picture? More echoes of prophecies from hundreds of years earlier: Malachi (4:2) said for those who revere God's name, "the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings." Healing points to the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, not just absence of conflict but a positive state of wellness and blessing.
Other passages in Scripture fill out even more the picture of what we're saved 'for'. There's soul-healing: Jesus fulfilled Isaiah's promise of One who'd bind up the broken-hearted: there's a lot of broken hearts around today - people who've been reduced to depression if not despair by the lumps they've taken in life (Is 61:1). Jesus offers rest: in Matthew 11(28ff) he invites those who are weary and burdened to come to Him and find rest for their souls. How many people do you know who seem run off their feet; who, even when they're still, rest evades them? Who knows, maybe if Tiger had not been away so much...
Jesus the Master Teacher offers enlightenment, the rising sun guiding our feet. Paul tells Timothy God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth - there's real, learnable, beneficial, life-changing content here! Study it, renewing your mind according to God's categories.
Something major we're saved for is to receive the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, Comforter, God's personal Helper for us (Gal 3:12; Jn 16:13; Gal 4:6). The Spirit pours God's love into our hearts and equips us with His fruit and varied gifts (Rom 5:8; Gal 5:22f; 1Cor 12) Perhaps in combination with this ministry of the Spirit to us, Jesus promises mystical fulfilment that's not possible apart from Him - for the thirsty, "let him take the free gift of the water of life"; streams of living water flow from within those who believe in Him, springs welling up to eternal life (Rev 22:17; Jn 4:14, 7:38).
Christians are typically hopeful because we are saved to share the glory of God - something this world has totally forgotten about, but that will be a key feature of God's forever Kingdom.Remember the disciples being wowed by Jesus' beauty and brilliance at the Mount of Transfiguraton? (Mt 17:2) That's a little sneak preview of what God's got planned for all His children - a body resurrected, raised in glory and power: 'so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.' (1Cor 15:43, 49)
Finally, perhaps most important, we are saved for relationship with God - knowing and loving God intimately. Through faith in Christ Jesus, Paul writes, we are all 'sons of God', we have clothed ourselves with Christ; because we are sons, God sends the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, calling out 'Abba, Father' (Gal 3:26f, 4:6). We are no longer enemies, un-amis, but friends, reconciled; "since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access..." (Rom 5:1f)
THE PHYSICIAN'S FOREVER
The movie The Hanging Tree was set in a western gold-mining camp in the late 1800s. Gary Cooper played the role of doctor for the camp. One day, a young boy was seen robbing gold from the camp. All hands in the camp spread out to see who would be the first to kill him for this offense. The doctor found the hurt, frightened youth. He took him into his cabin, nursed him, and removed the bullet. After the boy regained consciousness, he inquired what the doctor would do with him now. The doctor held the slug in the boy's face and said, "You will be my servant for as long as I want you to be, maybe forever, because that is how long you would be dead if this slug had remained in you."
If the slug of sin had remained in us, that's how long we would be condemned - forever. But the Great Physician, Jesus, has already performed the surgery to remove the bullet. If we trust Him to be our Saviour, it's our privilege to be servants of the One who healed us forever - for without His healing, we'd be perishing, condemned, punished forever. Even more wonderful - He calls us friends, not just servants! (Jn 15:15) Let's pray.